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Christie Administration Eyes Rutgers as Possible Source of Medical Marijuana

As time ticks down on the medical marijuana law, Gov. Christie is scrambling to find an acceptable supplier for the Garden State.

Rutgers has a long history of cultivating agricultural crops and licensing them for commercial production.

Think cranberries. Asparagus. Dogwood. Turfgrass.

Could medical marijuana be Rutgers’ next big crop?

Yes—although discussions are in the early stages, according to Robert Goodman, a plant biologist who serves as executive dean of Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station.

"We have the entire sweep of things that a state interested in implementing medical marijuana legislation on a scientifically sound basis could want," Goodman says he told state officials at a meeting last month, including farms, a pharmacy school and a top research program on the therapeutic properties of plants.

Soon after that meeting, arranged by the state Department of Health and Senior Services, the Christie administration floated a proposal that Rutgers oversee cultivation of medical marijuana. Under the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act—the most restrictive of the laws legalizing its use in 14 states—patients are not permitted to grow their own plants.

Marijuana Infrastructure

New Jersey is scrambling to assemble an infrastructure to make marijuana available to eligible patients. The new law was to have taken effect this month, with regulations published by October 1. Gov. Chris Christie, however, asked for a six- to 12-month delay in May. Lawmakers granted his wish, but postponed implementation by only three months. Now the rules must be in place by January 1, 2011. Depending on growing conditions, marijuana is a 90- to 120-day crop, says Goodman.

The Christie administration has also suggested that hospitals dispense the controlled substance. That idea came from J. Richard Goldstein, president of the New Jersey Council of Teaching Hospitals, said Reed Gusciora (D-Princeton Borough), a co-sponsor of the law. Goldstein, a one-time state commissioner of health under former Gov. Tom Kean confirmed making a PowerPoint presentation in Christie’s office. He declined to comment on specifics.

Neither Rutgers nor hospitals were envisioned as having any role under the original law, which stipulated that six nonprofit "alternative treatment centers" approved by regulators act as marijuana dispensaries. The law was vague on who would grow the substance.

The administration has not made any formal proposal, however, and Christie’s spokesman, Michael Drewniak, says that a number of options are under consideration.

Rutgers' Goodman said the university was a long way from agreeing to be a producer or grower. He has not even given thought as to where Rutgers would obtain the initial seeds, a critical problem. And there’s a world of difference between developing new varieties of hazelnuts, holly, or asparagus and cultivating medical marijuana.

Farmers and Entrepreneurs

"The growers would not be Rutgers people. They could be farmers. There’s certainly no shortage of entrepreneurs," said Goodman. "Somehow, a commercial operator would be selected. I could see us leasing [Rutgers] space, setting up a separate entity to operate advisory services and possibly having a training role."

Goodman said he could imagine pot growing on Rutgers' farms in north, central and south Jersey. He does not see campuses in New Brunswick, Newark or Camden as possible sites.

Gusciora cited a number of advantages to distributing medical marijuana in an academic setting.

"There’s more legitimacy with a teaching hospital than some nonprofit. They have medical personnel on hand, and they’re more secure. You also wouldn’t have to deal with the NIMBY situation, where certain communities didn’t want dispensaries,” he said.

Speaking specifically about Rutgers, Gusciora said the school has "many positives."

"You could have an academic track, from agricultural to pain management to business school," he said. "The other thing is, if new strains of marijuana were developed, Rutgers would be able to patent royalties, just as Georgetown has been able to recoup millions on its basketball team. We already have a football team and a women’s basketball team. This could bring new dollars."

Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), the medical marijuana bill’s chief sponsor, said he had not made up his mind either way.

"I’m considering that model, versus the model called for by the law," he said.

Mary Jo Patterson is a freelance writer based in West Orange.

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